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Vague Warnings And Public Panic


The American public, already traumatized by the horrors of September 11, are periodically warned that another such act is on the way. Justified warnings, based on realistic knowledge, are necessary and appreciated. But there is a social cost in raising perpetual alarms of impending threats to national security that don’t materialize or are so vague as to be useless in any pragmatic way.

We have received constant warnings of another Al Qaeda-act. They come periodically from the President, Attorney General Ashcroft, the Director of Homeland Security, and the FBI.. Periodically, Washington has instructed law enforcement agencies to be on “high alert” on some specific date — July 4, or the anniversary of September 11, or because of a sudden increase in intercepted communications without specifying what was communicated by whom about what.

All that has has had the country’s police chiefs, sheriffs, and other agencies forever saying, “We’re already on ‘high alert’ so what else do we do now? And where and when are the bad things supposed to happen?”

This brings to mind Chicken Little’s warning that “The sky is falling in!” or the little boy forever crying “Wolf!” But Chicken Little presumably clucked around in an otherwise bored chicken flock and the “Wolf!” boy lost his audience.

But our national chicken coop is still shaken by past attacks. Many people have stopped flying, or have held back visiting patriotic landmarks, and everyone is aware that “something” may happen “somewhere.” It would be folly to assume that Al Qaeda or some other clandestine group with malice toward the United States may, indeed, plan to do damage to life and limb. They have done it before and one way or another say they will do it again.

But there is a different kind of danger from too many urgent alarms without meaningful information. The precise mature of the damage to public security was enunciated years ago by the psychologists, Gordon Allport and Leo Postman.

Allport and Postman studied riots and public hysteria based on real fears but vague information. They reduced their studies to a specific formulation: The greater the public anxiety and the greater the inadequate credible information, the greater the chances are for panic and hysteria.

Already burned into the contemporary American memory are the terrifying pictures of the World Trade Centers disappearing before our eyes, the fumbled air attack on the Pentagon that nevertheless produced death and destruction, and the crashed Pennsylvania plane when a rebellious set of passengers fought back and gave their lives when the crashed hijacked plane failed to reach whatever had been its target.

The American public will never forget those scenes. Nor will they fail to revive them vividly when high government officials warn of some kind of repetition. So the first part of the Allport-Postman thesis is already

there: high public anxiety.

But because the country is regularly warned to be on “high alert” without useful details (Be Alert! Disaster May Strike Anywhere Anytime!”) the second part of the thesis is also there: the absence of precise and credible information.

Consequently, we have a national formula for panic and hysteria. This, too, has occurred. Attorney General Ashcroft has detained and held incommunicado unknown hundreds of people, some of them American citizens,

others legal permanent residents, unthinkable before September 11. Windows have been smashed and fire bombs hurled into the establishments of innocent ethnic Americans who seem to the rioting marauders to match the ethnicity of the Al Qaeda hijackers. There has been murder.

Acts of arson and destruction and insults have been inflicted on individuals and families whom some ignorant Americans have seen as resembling Palestinians. The taut nerves have spread to campuses where pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian confrontations have occurred . The thuggish ignorance of the window smashers affects all of us, if for no other reason that to the mindless window smashers a majority of American citizens “look foreign.”

Norman Solomon has shown that U.S. news services repeatedly refer to massive Israeli Army invasion of Palestine and destruction of whole neighborhoods, with thousands of men, women and children killed and injured in the rubble, as Israeli “retaliation” for individual Palestinian suicide bombers Israeli cafes and other public places that has killed dozens.

But only once did Solomon find our news services use the word “retaliation” to explain Palestinian suicide bombers for Israel’s massive invasion of Palestine, its seizing the best land, water and electrical sources within Palestine, building of Jewish settlements on Palestinian property and protecting them with deadly military force with a network of Israeli Army roads covering Palestine that, along with long and repeated day-long curfews of Palestinian cities, has paralyzed the Muslim society, machine gunned its ambulances and caused malnutrition among some Palestinian children.

Neither does it seem to have occurred to Sharon and his supporters that the more the Israelis imposed killings and destruction on Palestinians, the more Palestinian youths have blown themselves in Tel Aviv cafes in what is clearly retaliation for what Israel has done to their homeland. The one-sided response of the White House and most of the major news media has put cruel pressure on all Americans who are Muslims or are of Arab or other Middle Eastern origin.

That kind of imbalance and diminution of full and precise information in basic reporting in the main body of American news media has increased the probability of American hysteria and panic. The same is not true in Europe and elsewhere because both the news and official statements of European leaders have been more balanced and less high-pitched in denunciations of one side.

But the ultimate sign of hysterical response, of course, is in President Bush’s preparation to commit the United States to war against Iraq. This is not a public riot, but it does reflect the Allport-Postman thesis: by his constant support of Prime Minister Sharon’s destruction and killings in Palestine as necessary Israeli “defense,” thus encouraging international violence in that part of the Middle East, he has raised public tensions sufficiently to offer an outlet in a war (or, Sharon-like, a “defense”) against Sadam Hussein and the country of Iraq.

This does not mean that Sadam Hussein is a saint any more than Yassir Arafat is a saint. But it does mean that the White House and the nature of American basic news sources on the Middle East have raised public tensions while fundamental credible and precise information is lacking or what little there exists in the main media is smothered in the public rhetoric of threats and war from leadership in Washington.

Nothing could have multiplied the negative effects of the Allport-Postman thesis than the White House plan to create a corps of spies on every neighborhood and house in the country. Called TIPS for Terrorism Information and Prevention System it would organize truck drivers, bus drivers, port workers, meter readers, letter carriers and others are expected to report any “suspicious activities” they observe. Even though the political fate of the program is vague, its proposal by the highest officials of our government portrays ignorance or worse of horrors past:

In Communist East Germany, individuals informed on their spouses, or their best friends, or the local grocery merchant, and anyone else in order to keep in the good graces of the secret police. They did it because, who knows? Perhaps their spouses had secretly done the same thing to them, or their best friend, or the corner grocer because they, too, were desperate to be seen as friendly to the secret police. The result was a rotten, dysfunctional society that collapsed of its own ugliness when the Soviets fell.

Or the old KGB in the Soviet Union where people by the millions were arrested or disappeared because the country was run by paranoids without any sense of constitutional or human rights.

Or the “disappeared” Chile and Argentina, with support for those regimes from Washington.

Or the uncounted hundreds of thousands of murdered Muslims in East Timor, again with United States aid..

As uncontrolled and ruthless corporate “globalization” make victims of billions of the disenfranchised and impoverished of the world, will there not be a time when a charismatic leader with larger goals and even greater ruthlessness than Ibn bin Laden organize planetary rage against the United States?

All the horrors have come from exploiting each person’s fear of “the other,” the definition of “the other” up to authoritarian political leaders protecting their own power.

Doesn’t anyone in the Bush Administration read history? Or George Orwell?

Ben Bagdikian is the author of THE MEDIA MONOPOLY and other books on the mass media.

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